Twenty years after it first opened, Ayub Khan Din discusses why a play about growing up in Salford's Asian community is still relevant today.
What prompted you to write East is East?
I was in drama school in 1982 and becoming aware of how few brown faces were on TV and stage (and when they were it was usually a girl who didn’t want an arranged marriage). In the same year, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I wanted to get the stories of our family down on paper before they were lost. Writing was something I did in my spare time; I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously.
Where does the humour in the play come from?
From my childhood. In my family there were ten kids and my father was a strict disciplinarian, so when our siblings got into trouble, we poked fun because we were so happy it wasn’t us. People always ask me if East is East is a comedy or a tragedy. It’s both. Life can be serious one minute and hysterical the next. In our family a sense of humour is how you survived.
What was it like playing George, who is based on your own father, in the West End production a few years ago?
I wanted to be part of the gang and banter with Ella and the kids but there was a strange distance, which I had been told about by other actors who played George. It was a very odd experience. You’re on stage and you realise you’re talking to someone playing you as a kid.
Did it make you have more sympathy for your dad?
My dad was an uneducated, illiterate peasant from a village outside Kashmir; all he knew was his religion. He thought we would never be accepted as British. For a man of his time and history it was sacrosanct that if you were Muslim, you were in a brotherhood and a community. Obviously he couldn’t see things from our side. He couldn’t see the hypocrisy of marrying a white woman when according to him all things Pakistani were wonderful. I could never understand that hypocrisy and I still don’t.
What did you make of your parent’s relationship?
People would ask my mum why she didn’t leave my dad, but why would she? She was in love with him; she liked him. In the early days they were fine, but problems started as the kids started to grow up and make lifestyle choices. My mum made sure we celebrated Easter and we would have Christmas decorations up in the chip shop every year. We didn’t celebrate any Islamic holidays, which is amazing when you think about George; some things he accepted and some he didn’t. It was a really schizophrenic household we lived in.
Are your kids as rebellious as the Khan children?
Kids will always be rebellious. My two daughters call me IslamoDad when I say ‘that skirt is too short’. I’m strict like my parents were which I didn’t expect; I can hear their voices in my head when I tell my kids off. It’s more serious when a kid rebels in the Asian community, especially against their culture. Three generations down the line and communities have become more segregated so the cultural ties to India and Pakistan have become stronger. It’s harder for young Asians to rebel against their culture now.
How do you think life has changed for British Asian kids today?
I think they have exactly the same problems we did. Thirty-years later and the response I get from young Asians who are discovering East is East for the first time is still, ‘God that’s exactly like my Dad’. When we did the show in the West End in 2015, people asked if I had rewritten it to make it more political which of course I hadn’t. We’re much more aware today of the politics of what happens when you try to squeeze children into a culture that doesn’t exist for them.
2017 marks the 70th anniversary of Partition. Does knowing the history help to understand George?
We didn’t learn anything about Empire when I was at school in the 1960s. I started reading about it myself because it was a huge part of my history I knew nothing about. If kids were taught about colonisation in school, they would have a much better understanding of why black and Asian people are here today. People think immigrants came to Britain for jobs, but my father was in the Navy and arrived in 1929 to live in what he considered the Mother Country. It’s very hard for people to understand that today.
What do you make of the current landscape for Asian actors and creatives?
I’ve come across more racism as a writer in the last two years than in the whole of my acting career. The BBC and Channel 4 can have all the diversity charters they want but until they start putting it into practice then I question it. I hate the word diversity. It’s about honestly representing the community in the UK in popular culture. There is a lot of tokenism and no real stories being told. East is East wasn’t a success because a small Asian community saw it – everyone watched it.
Book your tickets for our forthcoming production of East is East
Published on 10/04/2017 15:55:37